MIAMI — Tuesday's news that LeBron James was exercising the early termination option in his contract was not a surprise.
It was not a surprise to reporters closely monitoring the situation—with the rumors trending strongly in that direction in recent days. It was not a surprise to anyone who listened intently to James' end-of-season press conference, during which he spoke of how every professional athlete prizes flexibility.
"I was informed this morning of his intentions," Riley said. "We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise. As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options."
Nor was the reaction a surprise: hysteria on the airwaves and on social media, errant assumptions about why James did it, wild predictions about where he's going.
The only surprise is that so few are remembering the storylines of little more than a week ago.
You know, that James was being asked to do too much—bringing up the ball, defending everyone from point guards to post players, carrying the offense.
That the burden was too great.
That he needed more help.
Help that even he requested.
"Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position," James said after losing Game 5 in San Antonio. "It's just how the league works."
So, now, all he's done is use the only tool the league's collective bargaining agreement has given him, in order to give the Heat the best chance to relieve some of that burden. Because, for all of Riley's bravado about how he had plenty of ways to improve the team even if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opted in for their $62 million share of the 2014-15 salary cap, the challenge would have been considerable. And, had Riley failed to find significant supplementary pieces under those constraints, and the Heat flamed out even sooner next postseason, the chances of James' ultimate departure—with more attractive markets (New York?) in better salary-cap position—would have increased dramatically from where they stand now.
James has ripped off the band-aid, rather than pulling it off slowly.
He's giving Riley a chance to squeeze on the necessary antibiotic, and heal what ails the Heat.
And Riley should have plenty of goop in the tube, provided that Bosh and Wade also opt out—which sources indicate they are likely to do in the coming days—and provided that all three then sacrifice some annual income for longer deals. The latter makes some sense for Bosh but even more for Wade, so long as the Heat offer reasonable sums (four years for $56 million seems fair for Wade, considering that he would not be assured of receiving two years for $14 million at age 34-and-a-half, at the expiration of his current two-year, $41.8 million contract).
Plus, Udonis Haslem—who shares an agent with Wade and Bosh—has consistently expressed an openness to extend his deal to three years. If he reduced his first-year salary to something closer to $3 million, that could add another $1.6 million to Riley's cash stash. And, depending on the order in which they agreed to new terms, the Heat would still likely retain a room mid-level exception of $2.7 million for additional depth.
That's cash Riley has already committed the organization to spend, through his press conference comments in strong defense of managing partner Micky Arison, promising that Arison will "do anything to get those guys to come back" and countering the conventional wisdom that Mike Miller was amnestied simply to save Arison luxury-tax penalties.
The latter clarification (or revisionism, depending on your point of view), like so much of that press conference, was directed mostly at James, who made no secret during the season of being miffed about the Miller move. James also wasn't thrilled about the Heat's plan for the NBA Finals, so Riley's rare critique of coach Erik Spoelstra—saying he needs to "take stock" in the offseason when it comes to the defense—should be seen in that context. As should Riley's admission that he needs to reinvent himself somewhat, even at age 69.
Riley was making it clear that, as much as he, Arison and Spoelstra delivered for James' first four years, they can be better.
They can make things easier for James.
James delivered enough during that time that he has earned the right to make them prove it.
It starts with Riley, general manager Andy Elisburg and the Heat's front-office team identifying the players James most wants around him, taking their available resources and making winning pitches.
Players like Carmelo Anthony who can handle some of the playmaking and scoring load, especially when Wade's unavailable.
Players like Kyle Lowry who can pester Tony Parker or Chris Paul to spare James from having to do so.
Players like Marcin Gortat who provide a reliable outlet down low, to turn more of James' passes into easy baskets.
Players like Shaun Livingston or Trevor Ariza who can latch onto some of the more lethal wings, and save James from that responsibility on some possessions.
Players who have now become greater possibilities after James put the burden on Riley.
It came at the price of some unease, not just among fans, but even players, such as the only Heat veteran who doesn't have an opt-out clause.
"That's something that they're going to discuss with their families and their agents," Norris Cole told me on The Ticket in Miami on Tuesday. "Obviously, I would love to have them back as teammates. You guys, it would great to have you back. You guys are all I know. I appreciate you guys. Please come back."
That was a pretty good plea.
Perhaps it's heard.
But first, we need to officially hear from Bosh and Wade about their intentions.
Then Pat Riley needs to come through.
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